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Researching Security: Juniata Physics Professor Rates Radiation Detectors

(Posted February 12, 2007)

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- A Juniata College physics professor and two of his student researchers are playing a role in the effort to make the borders, ports and other entryways into the United States safe from smugglers or would-be terrorists attempting to bring radioactive material into the country. Jim Borgardt, associate professor of physics, is continuing a research project started in summer 2005 at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Hanford, Wash., (one of nine national laboratories operated by the Department of Energy) that is focused on assessing the capabilities of radiation monitors that can be used at ports and border checkpoints to detect illicit radioactive material. Together with student researchers, Alison Earnhart, a senior from Mercer, Pa., and Sarah Bender, a senior from York, Pa., Borgardt worked with radiation detection monitors to acquire data to verify the algorithms that form a computational model designed to identify specific radioactive isotopes such as uranium, barium and other elements. These isotopes emit a unique signature that can trigger an alert at a monitoring station as a car, truck or shipping container holding radioactive material passes through the monitor. \"Much of the work we did at Hanford was to support detection algorithms which take advantage of unique signatures radioactive material gives off, so the machine can be calibrated to recognize specific signatures that might indicate the presence of a dangerous radioisotope, one that could be used for a nuclear weapon or \'dirty bomb,\'\" Borgardt explains. At the Hanford lab, Borgradt and the students used samples of radioactive materials. The monitors they worked with were originally developed for use in scrap metal-processing plants to separate out radioactive components from that could cause contamination. Before Borgardt, Earnhart and Bender returned to Huntingdon, they discussed the possibility of establishing an ongoing collaboration with Hanford scientists that would allow them to continue their research at Juniata. Borgardt was able to obtain a radiation monitor that will be used on campus to continue the radiation detection research. \"The scanners at the Hanford lab are at the second and third generation of technology, yet the lab still has the first generation of scanning equipment available,\" Borgardt says. \"The lab has given Juniata one of the first-generation scanners on a long-term loan, which means we will be able to offer our physics students the opportunity to work on a piece of equipment -- worth about $20,000 -- at the forefront of ongoing national security efforts that very few other colleges have.\" The research the Juniata team will establish how radiation readings can be analyzed and evaluated in a process that requires the scanner to make a passive, nonintrusive and rapid assessment regarding the presence of radiation as a vehicle passes through. The challenge, Borgardt explains, is to distinguish between legitimate alarms indicating the presence of illegal radioisotopes that could be used as part of a weapon and less threatening radiation sources in shipments arising from products we use in everyday life. \"There is radiation all around us and much of it can be detected by these scanners,\" he says. \"Cat litter emits lots of radiation because it has sand in it, which contains naturally occurring uranium. Televisions emit radiation, and even people who have undergone radiation treatments for an illness can trigger readings. So, our research is to find ways to identify radiation that might be a security threat within the \'background\' radiation that exists in the everyday environment.\" Borgardt will be installing Juniata\'s monitoring station in the next few months or in summer. Although the research team had the opportunity to work with very small samples of weapons-grade uranium and other materials at Hanford, the researchers will use garden-variety radiation source material such as cesium, americium and barium at Juniata. \"I sent students out to Hanford again in summer 2006 and we are looking for students to go again this summer, so this should be a great collaboration with the lab,\" Borgardt says. \"This research combines physics and chemistry, as well as national security, and I think it\'s an area that will become a growing career field.\"

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.